Graphic compiled by Zoë Collins (she/her)
Photos by Hans Beimler
As queer people, there are narratives and talking points that define our humanity from day one. Our rights to live, love, and thrive are considered up for debate. We are exposed to an unfiltered, unabashed dissonance from a young age. We prepare ourselves with words as armor, working to seem unafraid in the face of bigotry. But when we collect ourselves with our words as our power, what, or better yet whom, are we fighting for and against? And what if we are fighting for an identity that is built on the very beliefs we seek to liberate ourselves from?
“There’s nothing I can do. I was born this way.” These are the words we say to ourselves in the mirror as we face our queerness clashing with our surroundings. It’s the chant amongst which we unite ourselves and the battle cry with which we fight for ourselves. But I have to ask, what would be so wrong with me if I was not born this way? What is society’s and bigotry’s issue with a queerness that is chosen, or a queerness that is not innate?
I’m not the first person to talk about challenging ‘Born this Way’ rhetoric. In this article, Jane Ward, a professor of gender studies at UC Riverside, talks about how queerness is ever-changing and that it is something progressively claimed more and more throughout each of our individual lifetimes. In another article, Callie Hitchcock, a writer from Brooklyn, challenges the belief in fixed, innate identities of queerness. The groundwork against ‘Born this Way’ has existed for a while. I want to create space for more conversation on this topic of an everlasting, ever-changing, ever-growing queerness.
On the suggestion from a friend, I’ve been reading “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong, a queer, Vietnamese writer who created this book in the form of letters to his mother. Looking further into Vuong’s work, I listened to a podcast, “All the Ways to Be,” in which I heard Vuong brilliantly articulate, “Being queer saved my life. Often we see queerness as deprivation. But when I look at my life, I saw that queerness demanded an alternative innovation from me. I had to make alternative routes, it made me curious, it made me ask if this is not enough for me.” I’d like to connect that to the idea of a fluid queerness.
Vuong’s idea of queerness as a savior reminds me of queerness for myself. I see queerness as the oxygen which fuels my inner fire. I see queerness as my eternal need to self-reflect, improve, and challenge the world around me. I see queerness as something not singular but all-encompassing. If anything, the magnificence of being queer is not that I was unknowingly gifted it by birth but that queerness chose to breathe life into me, and that I reciprocated that choice by breathing life into my queerness everyday. It is not separate from me in any regard because the me that stands today stands on the shoulders of queer intellectuals, activists, writers, and artists.
Arguing that queer youth or people in general are ‘Born this Way’ not only serves as a reactionary talking point meant to defuse our oppressors’ harmful rhetoric, but also works to include us in spaces in which queerness does not belong. To say someone is born a certain way and that they should not be discriminated against is to imply that someone has an issue but it is not their fault. Queerness is not an issue. It is not a complication. Yet all queerness appears to be is complicated in the eyes of bigots. Framing our existence as inherent is a reaction, putting us on the defense.
To be ‘Born this Way’ implies to be given the tools necessary to acclimate to a supposedly fixed queerness as well. It implies that to be born queer is to be born with the knowledge of how to be queer. That our personalities, our mannerisms, our cultures, and our practices are within. It erases the necessity of community, the intersection of race, and importance of locality in defining each and every individual’s queerness. My sexuality and gender identity did not come to be. Rather, they are coming to be. They are an ongoing struggle both scientific and emotional, rational and visceral.
So while queerness was not a choice for many of us, I want us to ask ourselves: what if it was? Past choosing queerness, let us ask ourselves: what aspects of being queer did I gain as I grew emotionally, spiritually, and physically? What norms of my identity did I shed through queerness? How and why does my queerness evolve? And what parts of my queerness would I be unafraid to choose now, knowing that it will indefinitely shape who I am in the future?
“…queer as not about who you’re having sex with, that can be a dimension of it, but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.” – bell hooks
Author: Shaanth Kodialam (They/Them)
Artist: Zoë Collins (She/Her)
Copy Editor: Bella (She/They)